Saturday, 19 November 2011

Man Up - PNG Style

First and foremost, this is not an entry which aims to be informative. I think it’s pretty clear that I lack the sort of plumbing required to know what it means to ‘be a man’ and I’ve certainly never given the concept of masculinity in any culture much thought. (OK, I may have done some wondering whilst in Japan – a land where a man can never over pluck his eyebrows or own two many manbags.) Here in PNG, my understanding of manhood is somewhere south of nothing – so, in this entry, I’d just like to raise a few things, throw out a few ideas, share my observations and all that.

Here are some of the things I’ve observed about men in PNG which, according to my western whitey ways are somewhat contradictory, or at least worth pondering…..

Men in PNG carry bush knives. Correction, males in PNG, including small boys, carry bush knives. This makes them look really tough. The other day I was walking down the street and I saw a couple of young men, shirts off, upper bodies ripped, swinging machetes to cut grass by the side of the road. I was on my own and given all the scary stories you hear from PNG, this kind of situation can makes one a little nervous. There were also some little boys playing on the footpath in front of me. Suddenly one of the young men, lunges forward towards the path (and me – ahh!) but only so he can use the back of his knife to give the kids a little smack to get them to move off the path and out of my way. He follows this with ‘sori misses’ and smiles shyly at me.

This little tacker practices with a knife. His parents gave it to him to play with to keep him quiet. 

So far, all of the men I encounter around town greet me in a very old fashioned and courteous way. This is only comment worthy when you can picture them also carrying a bush knife and speaking with a mouth full of buai. Buai, or betel nut, is chewed here with mustard and lime. It’s gives the chewer a high as well as a mouth full of thick, blood red saliva. It also seems to rot their teeth. This means that sometimes when men speak to you they kinda look like recently satiated vampires who have lived in eras pre-dentistry. 

On the flip side, the buai also makes their lips really red, so although they come across partially like tough men of the land, they also, at times, look like kids who’ve gotten into their mums make up.

Now, for a parallel with Japan – everyone carries bags here. Men, women, kids, all carry bags either over their shoulder, around their neck like a necklace, or with the strap like a headband and the bag hanging down their back. So I’m thinking it’s us in the west who have peculiar ideas about men not carrying small bags. Everyone here carries woven bags called bilums, and stylistically, they are completely non gender specific.    

Also, men sometimes stick leaves or feathers in the centre of their afros. The women don’t do this where I live (although I’m told in other provinces, women sometimes put a flower behind their left ear to show they are married or the right ear to show they are single). Many of the women do however, have facial tattoos. Sometimes these are small dots on the forehead, sometimes long straight lines cutting diagonally across the cheeks (the markings relate to where they are from). It certainly makes them look tough – significantly tougher than a man with flora in his hair :) 

Anyway, when you combine handbag carrying, bright red lips, hair adornments, a laplap (sarong) and a muscular arm wielding a machete, you get a pretty interesting visual representation of a manliness which defies and challenges what we think of as ‘manly’ in Australia. I really love living outside of Aus for these kinds of culture readjustments. Travelling definitely gives you an insight but living somewhere, just going about your everyday life in another context, really messes with your sense of ‘normal’ in the best possible way.

But I digress. Moving on from the aesthetic stuff, through the research I’ve been involved with, I’ve encountered some really interesting, and at times confronting things concerning cultural expectations of men in PNG.

We (the research team, who are all PNGn except for me) have heard from locals about how men don’t want to accompany their wives to antenatal clinic visits because, wait for it, they’ll be teased by the pregnant women at the clinic. Or, they’ll be picked on by others in the community for walking around with their pregnant wife. When I asked what kind of terrifying things others might say about them, we were given examples like ‘oh, yu papa pinis!’ (oh, you’re already a father!) or they might be called a dog for following their wife around, or, someone might say ‘traim na isi liklik’ (try and slow down a little – as in, you’ve already had sex and gotten her pregnant, now leave her alone and stop trying for more). Seriously? Their manhood is shattered because they got their wife pregnant and people know that – gasp - they actually care about their wife and want to accompany her? We’ve also heard stories of men creeping into labour wards at night to visit their wives and give them food. Of course, they had to sneak in so no one would see them. Oh the shame!

One of the health workers also told us that men shouldn’t accompany their wife to the baby’s immunisation visit because women can handle it but the father will get too upset when the baby is in pain. I mean really. When I heard this, I couldn’t help but mutter, ‘sounds like they need to man up’ – which then meant I had to explain the term ‘man up’ to my colleagues who thought it was very funny and readily agreed (they are women and all have a background in health work). 

Just in case I’m giving the impression that men in PNG are 100% pansy, I should also present to you an alternative scenario. A few months ago, Geoff and I attended, along with Hannah and Mike, our awesome NZ buddies who live across the road, a fire dance performance. The performance was held to honour the outgoing archbishop, who is originally from Germany, but has lived in East New Britain for decades and is greatly respected in the Catholic community here. In particular, he has worked closely with the Baining people, who live in inland ENB and are culturally and linguistically different to the Tolai, who live along the coast. The Baining do not usually conduct any cultural activities on Tolai land, but an exception was made for the archbishop.   

We went along, and to be honest, I expected some sort of running across hot coals kind of thing. Instead, men dressed only in heavy, elaborate headdresses and strips of vegetation ran through a huge fire of burning logs. Flames were leaping to head height and the logs were all stacked loosely on top of each other so that even if they hadn’t been on fire, running over and through them could easily have resulted in some bad ankle damage. To the side of the fire, men chanted and beat drums. The whole thing was pretty crazy and the men doing the fire runs – brave or insane depending on your take. The audience also had to duck and weave at times as flaming logs were accidently kicked out of the fire and sent flying into the seated audience. (Anyone who sooks about Australia being a nanny state should really move to PNG.) The performance took place on a local school oval, where our friend Mike is a PE teacher (amongst many other roles). As we marvelled at the dancing fire men, he looked on wistfully as his sports field was set alight and a large section of grass turned to a pit of ash. Ahh the challenges of life in the ‘land of the unexpected’.

But, the point of this story was not to highlight the challenges of teaching PE in PNG, but that here is a place where some men are scared of being teased by a bunch of pregnant ladies in oversized floral dresses or of seeing a baby cry from a needle jab, yet at the same time, men are willing to run through six foot flames to say ‘thanks for being a tops archbishop’.

So, what does it mean to be a manly man? Is it mainly about how you present yourself, physically, to others? Or is it more about the level of hardship you’re willing to sign up for? The more time I spend outside my comfort zone, the more our expectations of gender seem highly arbitrary.  

I wonder what people from PNG would make of men in Australia? Walking around holding hands with their women, a mouth full of straight pearly whites, no skills with anything bigger than a steak knife…….

Anyway, those are my observations of men in PNG. Sorry for the lack of photos today but I didn’t think it very ethical to take photos of random men and post them online. I don’t want to get myself into trouble and have to purchase a pig. I’ll explain that one another time.

Lukim yu na gutpela wiken bilong yu J


  1. My parents say they love the blog. I am still working on how to get my Uncle to find it in Maine, but I'll keep trying. Very interesting. Loved the guy whacking his kid with the back of a machete to move aside. I love how much you're experiencing.


  2. A pig? That'll be interesting. Poor women, their men won't assist them from fear of being dubbed 'unmanly'. That's crazy! Everyone from class says hello! We have our end of year exam tommorow! Slightly, okay well a bit more than slightly, freaked out. We had another emotional farewell to a Japanese teacher this year (no guilt intented), with Ms Onozaki :( However, we're not sure if Mr. Tamura will be teaching us next year so we might end up with Ai and then you half way through???!!?!?! :) Wouldn't that be lovely. I hope everything is going well and that you are coping with the lizards in your kitchen. Lukim yu

    (I learn from you even when you aren't teaching!)


    PS: The 2011 Great Vic Bike ride is soon :( Ahh the jealousy..

  3. I totally get what you are saying about 'manliness'. As you know, I am Counselor for pregnant and parenting teenagers and I see similarities in what you are saying with our dads in the Caribbean-Canadian community. For a lot of the dads, it is just not cool to be seen caring about their pregnant girlfriends/baby mamas (as they call them, and as the girls call themselves). It's almost like it's a sign of weakness to be involved, and that your peers will think you are 'whipped'. It's 'manly' to spread your seed, shall we say, but to then take on the role of being attentive, well, not so much. That isn't to say there aren't some that are involved, there are, but unfortunately, not as common. I think it's also uber frightening to you know, be a dad at 16/17 and not have any context for how to go about it...Anyway, all this to say, I can sorta get it, that they'll run through burning logs but not attend antenatal appointments. Ah yes, nothing is ever so simple, nothing is black or white. Cultural Relativism anyone?